V.S. Ramachandran M.D., P.H.D., and Sandra Blakeslee | Phantoms in the Brain


I have become incredibly well-versed in the happenings of the brain over the past few months. A little while back I read Icognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman. Prior to that was The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes (as thrilling as the title suggests.) And coming up soon I’ve got The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat by Oliver Sacks.

Each of these books brings their own interesting perspectives to who and how we are. They mix science with the anecdotal in order to liven up the reading. But inevitably, some are just more interesting than others, and for various reasons. I felt Phantoms In The Brain was a little lacking. Lacking in what? I’m not sure I could put a definitive finger on it. There was a lot of ground covered, and so many pieces of the brain discussed, that I often felt swamped and confused. Each chapter typically covered three or four different anomalies and as many as or two or three times more parts of the brain. Trying to keep it all together felt more studious and less leisurely. Part of the problem is, by Ramachandran’s own admittance, his interest in the various anomalies. By not settling on one particular issue, but rather a wide variety, you’re kept constantly jumping and never really feel like you’ve got a good handle on one piece. Instead, he’ll present an anecdote, quickly followed by his theory, then three or four alternative theories – both historical and present – then back to the anecdote, then some testing and how it relates the brain, then back to theory, and then to anecdote, etc. It was overwhelming.

Finally, and this may just be related to the edition I was reading, I felt like I was slogging through the book. Despite its relative shortness (260 pages), it felt three times as long. I’ve whipped through books twice as long, non-fiction and particularly science, so it wasn’t the subject matter. But about halfway through I noticed something that I had never noticed in 25 years of reading: paper and font matter (at least to me.) The book was paperback, where I usually prefer hardcover. Not that big of a deal, but notable. The paper itself was more textured and slightly browned, indicating age. That subtly bothered me when reading. And the font, that was the biggest difference. It seemed like the line spacing was slightly smaller, and same for the font. Compared to Incognito, which had the same page size, Phantoms had 40 lines per page compared to 35 for Incognito. Without noticing it, it makes a huge difference. Now, I’m not suggesting Large Print is the way to go, but reading a book with short chapters, you tend to read more pages since “It’s only three pages to the end of the chapter, might as well to the end.” And the same when the font is slightly larger, or there are less lines on the page. You will read more in one sitting since it’s both easier on the eyes and you feel like you’re getting further. On a random sample, there were less words per line than Incognito, but the words were frequently scientific terms (“We know that certain parts of the limbic system such as the insular cortex are connected to the hypothalamic “appetite” centers and also to parts of the parietal lobes concerned with body image.”) and so each word took longer to process.

What am I trying to say here? I’m saying that this book isn’t really worth picking up as other books do the same for the topic in a better format; that paper and font matter; and that it’s the first time I’ve really noticed how much that matters.

Book 64 of 189


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